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Gun violence: So much more to learn

How do we reduce gun violence? A recent two-year in-depth RAND Corporation study of previous studies on the subject concluded we do not yet have conclusive evidence to answer that question adequately. As this study concludes:: “The state of American gun policy science is not good, overall.”

So first, what is the state of the debate? A recent article in VOX sums it up neatly: “Both sides generally agree that the top concerns are public health and safety outcomes. It’s just that they disagree on which policies are more effective at doing that – the permissive side genuinely believes that more lenient gun policies could save lives, while the more restrictive side (where I find myself) genuinely believes that more limiting policies could save lives.”

Regardless of one’s position on gun rights and gun safety, many in the debate make strong sweeping declarations that their prescriptions on gun policy are unquestionably right, are based on empirical facts, and will work to reduce gun violence. All sides of the debate…repeat… ALL..sides of the debate are mistaken to be so cocksure they have irrefutable facts that support their positions when good studies are few and far between. The truth is that we do not have solid scientific evidence about how different policies or combinations of policies would affect outcomes.

In its two-year in-depth study of all available research on gun violence and gun laws, the clear conclusion of the non-partisan think tank, the RAND Corporation’s Drop ‘s, was this: “Many of the matters that people disagree on the subject of gun policy have not been rigorously studied in ways that produce reasonably unambiguous results.” “The lack of thorough research,” the study added, “creates a kind of fact-free environment in which people can cherry-pick any study that happens to support what their priors are on the effects of the law.” No one wants to admit it, but no one really knows what works to prevent gun deaths. The RAND report states: “Federal restrictions on research are a major reason for the weak base of scientific evidence that support claims about gun policy.”

Up until March 23, an NRA and Republican supported law called the Dickey amendment severely restricted the ability of Federal agencies to conduct research on gun violence. Yet, what we have needed most is politically untainted scientific studies on gun violence to ensure that our interventions have a chance of working. In the absence of such studies, it’s easy for groups on both sides of the debate to cite inconclusive, sometimes contradictory and often shoddy work to support their prior beliefs.

Five years ago after Sandy Hook, a commentator said: “Studies take too long. What we need is action.” What action? It’s one thing not to have science-based answers on potential gun policies that reduce violence. It’s quite another not to want to know. Thankfully, the latest Federal Budget funding bill contains one sentence stating that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can conduct research on gun violence. If this provision is followed up by substantial funding and meaningful research on gun violence, new research may turn out to be the most valued and least publicized advance toward gun safety achieved in the aftermath of the Parkland tragedy.

The RAND researchers did draw some tentative conclusions on the basis of evidence found in available research. Sadly, their level of confidence in these findings is not very reassuring. RAND stated that “there’s moderate evidence that background checks reduce suicide and violent crime; limited evidence that prohibitions associated with mental illness reduce suicide, moderate evidence that these mental health prohibitions reduce violent crime, and supportive evidence that child-access prevention laws ((laws that require guns to be stored unloaded, or in locked containers) reduce suicides and unintentional injuries and deaths.”

“Meanwhile,’ RAND went on, “there’s limited evidence that concealed carry laws increase violent crime and unintentional injuries and deaths. And there’s moderate evidence that “stand your ground” laws measures that expand when someone can use a gun or other weapons to defend himself – increase violent crime. There is moderate evidence that violent crime is reduced by laws prohibiting the purchase or possession of guns by individuals who have a history of involuntary commitment to a psychiatric facility. There is limited evidence these laws may reduce total suicides and firearm suicides.” The RAND study found that evidence is inconclusive on the effect of laws banning the sale of assault weapons and high capacity magazines on total homicides, firearm homicide, and (to my utter amazement) mass murders. (Don’t mass murderers kill more people than they otherwise would when they use an assault weapon?)

Everything we know is supported by moderate or limited or inconclusive evidence…. nothing for sure.

Nevertheless, sometimes one has to make decisions about the future on the basis of incomplete knowledge. Personally, I think the root problem of gun violence is the overwhelmingly easy access to guns. I support the right of clear majorities of citizens to work for the legislative enactment of what I consider to be the commonsense laws passed in Connecticut after Sandy Hook: a reliable system to implement background checks for all gun sales, a ban on the kinds of “weapons that are most useful in military service-M-16 rifles and the like” (in other words, M-16 knockoffs – personally, I would include AR-15’s), a ban on new high-capacity ammunition magazines, a new registry for existing magazines that carry more than 10 bullets, a dangerous weapon offender registry, and the right of individual states to refuse to recognize pistol permits from other states. Weapons that Justice Antonin Scalia has characterized as “weapons that are most useful in military service-M-16 rifles and the like” “(that is, M-16 knock-offs), a ban on new high-capacity ammunition magazines, a new registry for existing magazines that carry more than 10 bullets, a dangerous weapon offender registry, and the right of individual states to refuse to recognize pistol permits from any other states.

In the meantime, tragically, gun related suicides and homicides continue at appalling rates. More tragically, we do not know all that much about underlying causes of gun violence and what we do know, we know with low levels of confidence. Most tragically, our lack of support for extensive, in-depth research on gun violence make us appear to not want to know. As we all demand “Action Now,” it is high time to fund research that will give us some certainty that the action(s) we take will work. Otherwise, our efforts to promote gun safety will continue to be a matter of “Ready, Fire, Aim.”

Mannello is a retired hospital executive and business consultant residing in Williamsport

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